Today, Afghanistan will conduct the runoff for the Presidential elections. I wrote about the first round last month, and I want to add a couple of quick notes before today’s voting. First, since my last post, the final results of the elections have been posted. For the last map, I was working off of preliminary results before the votes had been checked for fraud. I also found a district-level breakdown here, allowing more detail than before. The resulting map is posted below.
Obviously, this map isn’t very different from the original one I posted, but it does demonstrate that Rassoul was very competitive throughout the rural south. He won a number of districts in Helmand and Nimroz provinces, which didn’t register on the first map because Ghani won the overall vote in both. Also, even though Rassoul won Kandahar province, he did not win the city of Kandahar (Ghani did), instead relying on his strong showing in the rural areas of the province. A couple of pockets of support for Ghani in the north also make an appearance. His main support in the north showed up in the two provinces he won, but there is also the small cluster on the border with Tajikistan as well as one around the Wakhan Corridor, which borders China. The people who live in the second area include speakers of Pamiri languages, such as Wakhi, which I mentioned in my last post on the languages of Pakistan. These languages are related to Pashto, which is the dominant language in the south. Also note that three minor candidates who didn’t win any provinces show up on this more detailed version.
The real question is who is going to win today. To me, it seems hard to construct a path to victory for Ghani. Both Rassoul and Sherzai have endorsed Abdullah, and Sayyaf’s vice-presidential candidates have as well. Add those vote totals up, and Abdullah should receive 65% of the vote. This means that Abdullah only needs to win about a quarter of the votes of the candidates who endorsed him. Basically, Ghani would need a miracle or massive vote fraud (always a real possibility in Afghanistan) in order to win. This has the potential to change the way everyone views politics in Afghanistan. Pashtun dominance of Afghan politics has long been taken for granted. The royal family of Afghanistan was Pashtun; the Taliban is Pashtun. Even the puppet leaders installed by the Soviets in the 1980s were Pashtuns. One of the reasons the U.S. decided to back Hamid Karzai is that he was one of the only Pashtuns with anti-Taliban credibility, and American policymakers felt that the new leader of Afghanistan had to be both untainted by Taliban connections and a Pashtun.
However, Pashtuns constitute only about 40% of the population. This means that, in a democracy, they can’t dominate the country as they used to. Karzai, as a southern Pashtun with northern ties, was able to bridge some of the divides in Afghanistan’s demography, but the bottom line is that Tajik rule is probably going to become entrenched. Tajiks, of course, only consist of about 30 percent of the population. This statistic is often repeated by the media, and even used to argue for more Pashtun control. The “Tajik” ethnic designation is very hazy and confusing though. Varieties of the Persian language are spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. In Tajikistan, the local dialect is called “Tajiki”. In Afghanistan, it’s “Dari”. In Iran, it’s “Farsi”. For some reason, the speakers of the Dari and Tajik varieties of Persian get lumped into one ethnic group, and the Farsi-speakers into another. I think this likely reflects the Shia-Sunni split between Iran and Afghanistan/Tajikistan. The same is true in Afghanistan, where the Persian-speaking but Shia Hazara are considered ethnically distinct from the Sunni Tajiks. To get a better idea of the number of “Persian” people in Afghanistan and ignore arbitrary “ethnic” lines, the best bet is to look at the languages. In fact, about half of Afghans speak the Dari dialect of Persian as a first language, making them the majority and Pashtuns the minority.
The implications of this split for Afghanistan’s future are very serious. Pashtuns feel that they have a right to govern Afghanistan, but they probably will never be able to as long as Afghanistan’s democracy stands. Obviously, a democracy with issue-based parties that cut across ethnic lines would be ideal, but that possibility is remote in a country where ethnicity is so important. This means that violence and rebellion could be the Pashtuns’ only hope for regaining power. Of course, a Pashtun militant group already exists: the Taliban. That means that we could see a surge in popularity of the Taliban amongst Pashtuns, and a turn towards more explicitly Pashtun nationalist rhetoric from the Taliban. The other factor is that two-thirds of Pashtuns live in Pakistan, and their homeland there forms the base for the Pakistani Taliban or Tehirk-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The possibility of revived Pashtun nationalism is somewhat scary for Afghanistan, but downright terrifying for Pakistan. Afghanistan was the only country to vote against Pakistan’s inclusion in the United Nations because it claimed Pakistan’s Pashtun territory. The North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) was only included in Pakistan in the first place through some fancy footwork and a boycott of the polls by a major anti-Pakistan party. If the current Islamist insurgency in Pakistan is coupled with revived Pashtun nationalism, Pakistan could soon be facing dissolution. This shows why elections can be dangerous for countries where ethnic or religious identity trumps national identity. In these cases, elections are seen as a way to capture power for a particular ethnic group. An election turns into nothing more than a glorified census. Elections accelerate the breakdown of weak states. They do not consolidate them. Whether that means that the West should allow weak states to split up or support dictators who hold them together is a whole different argument, though I would lean towards the former. Today though, we may see the first act of a renewed Afghan civil war, and eventually a serious challenge to the integrity of two of Asia’s weakest states.
Update: See my post on the preliminary results of the runoff here.